For Mike Halverson, going to “the hole” to visit prisoners in lockdown is an opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life. “There’s a lot of pain in there,” he said. On most Fridays, it’s one of the first places he visits after arriving at the Bledsoe County Correctional Complex (BCCC).
“There’s a lot of them who don’t have the foggiest idea who Jesus is,” said Mike. “But, to help them to realize that He loves them and cares for them and they have a purpose in this life, that’s awesome.”
Mike, along with his wife, Diana, are both building contractors. Despite their busy schedule, for more than 20 years they have also found time to be volunteer chaplains at BCCC, a state prison in Tennessee.
While many of the approximately 3,000 inmates know Mike and Diana by name, they’ve also earned the respect of the prison officials. This has provided many opportunities for them to minister and share God’s love. Every week, they are at the prison most days of the week, sometimes multiple times a day, meeting with inmates, conducting religious services for them, and praying with them. But, it hasn’t always been like this.
When they first started volunteering at the prison, there was a lot of resistance to having an Adventist presence at the prison. However, in 2013 there was a change in state leadership. The new state chaplain previously had positive experiences with Adventists and knew he could trust them. Since then, the Halversons have earned the trust and respect of the prison officials and have become the primary volunteer chaplains at BCCC.
This has opened up additional opportunities for other members to be involved in the prison. The Halversons work with eight other Adventist lay persons from several area churches who regularly minister and provide Bible studies at BCCC. Every Friday evening, these volunteers hold four simultaneous Bible studies, some of them with up to 40 participants. While members of other denominations also visit the prison, Jorge Ulloa from the Dunlap Hispanic Church is the only volunteer conducting a Bible study in Spanish.
There have been other groups that have tried to provide programming in Spanish, but have been unable to, saidDiana. “We are just really blessed with being able to have these services.”
The Halversons are two of the nearly 100 volunteers across the Georgia-Cumberland Conference involved with prison ministries. “These volunteers have a great opportunity,” said E.W. Dempsey, Georgia-Cumberland Conference adult ministries director.
“These are opportunities for us to reach people whose world has stopped,” said Dempsey, who oversees its health and prison ministries programs. Referring to Matthew 25:36, 43 NIV, Dempsey emphasizes: “Christ asked us to do this when He said to the righteous, ‘I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me,’ but then said to the cursed, ‘I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’”
“One of the most exciting parts for me,” said Diana, “is when the inmates first hear the Sabbath truth and see it in the Bible. You see them struggle with it at first and then, all of a sudden, they exclaim: ‘Wow, I didn’t know that; why didn’t I know that? I’ve been a Christian all my life.’”
As a result of the Halverson’s ministry, several inmates have asked for baptism and received one-on-one studies from either Mike or Diana. “These inmates are then baptized as members of one of the local churches or a church near where they will be released at the end of their sentence. In addition to the at least 20 baptisms, there are another 40 people that currently identify as Adventists,” said Diana.
During their ministry at BCCC, the Halversons have worked with people and entire units that nobody else wanted, such as the mental health unit. “In this unit, the people are so medicated,” explained Diana, “they can’t walk and are difficult to be around.” Now, over half the people come to their services and are cordial to Mike and Diana.
“I don’t think there’s any limit to what God can do, if you’re willing,” said Mike.
Georgia-Cumberland | April 2023